Auburn head coach Jeff Graba said that better communication practices are needed within his program and that they will be employed moving forward, after three black former gymnasts posted on social media this week describing times they said they felt uncomfortable at Auburn.
Kennedy Finister, A’Miracal Phillips and Telah Black all posted to Instagram this past week about challenges faced at a predominantly white institution in Auburn University and on the gymnastics team, which also had a predominately white roster during their time on the team.
They each said that hurtful language was used around them by their white teammates and that the program failed to take satisfying action on that when they raised the issue.
Black also said that in 2018 she and two black teammates were told by a team trainer that they “talked like thugs.” Staff turnover indicates the trainer has since moved on from Auburn.
Finister, Phillips and Black all published their posts publicly on June 5 amid ongoing unrest around the country, and a few days after former Alabama gymnast Tia Kiaku posted on social media about her own separate issues with that program, sparking discussion within gymnastics circles online.
Graba said on June 9 that he has since spoken with former athletes and vowed create a culture within the program where everyone feels valued, celebrated and protected.
Auburn athletics has denied interview requests made by the Opelika-Auburn News and instead referred to Graba’s statement on Twitter.
“Through valuable discussion, I’ve had the opportunity to listen, learn and apologize for where I’ve fallen short as a leader,” Graba said in part of his statement posted to Twitter. “Through these conversations, I’ve concluded that better communication practices are needed between me and our gymnasts. That starts with me.”
The posts suggest that old policies maybe meant to boost inclusion could have been implemented the wrong way. Black said that in 2018 she was suspended for a week for jokingly calling out, “Black girls, over here,” during a meet when wanting to bring together a huddle of her teammates who happened to be black. The gymnasts also said they were made uncomfortable for being with one another without white teammates around, with Finister saying jokes about segregation were made by teammates when they were together.
Finister said she and a group brought issues to athletics department personnel in the spring of 2018, but soon after, unrelated staff turnover saw the two people that they met with be let go and leave Auburn, and from there any follow-up dissipated. There was turnover then after Auburn changed athletics director and named Allen Greene its new athletics director in January 2018.
Finister has posted in comments that speaking her mind and talking with her coach has lifted weight off her chest.
Phillips commented that she is still a proud Auburn alum.
“It’s unfortunate that this was a part of my experience, but hopefully this will be handled properly so this program can move in the right direction in terms of what the true meaning of Auburn Family is,” she said.
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There is no coincidence that the world is in destruction today. Growing up in predominantly white sports exposed the thought of racial stereotypes to be true. My time at Auburn made it more prominent, but I never questioned actions because you only know what you’re taught. There were multiple occasions of “nigga” being used openly in conversation. When it was revealed through social media, it felt as if the head coach tried to justify this language with the comparison of “gook”. There was poor “humor” involved with using (black) face masks. And even times that staff referred to black teammates together to as “thugs”, to say the least. An added obstacle of being told that i need to tone down my personality to make them feel comfortable or the constant pressure of not being “the bad group” when hanging out with black teammates led me to bite my tongue in situations that would just get swept under the rug. The fate of the final year of my career was in the hands of those teammates, but never once was my story considered by staff. Giving them so much power came along with a teammate being adamant that I wouldn’t stand a chance if my talk with administration, in the midst of being suspended, was a racial issue. I could’ve given it up... but not for something I’d dedicated 19 years of my life to, only to let the oppressor win. Occurrences like these are engraved in my college memories, but I forgave for a piece of mind to enjoy the most of what was left. You were all heard then, now my hope is that you are heard in the evolvement of racial injustice. Realistically, if this is not tolerated through any program, business, or person, a step in the right direction has to be taken and held accountable through education, advocation, and action. Not every person that I’ve encountered throughout life has recklessly shown their color, so i do appreciate those that show constant authenticity, but right now, I stand for the little girls that admire the athlete of color; so she and everyone around her can use their voice to grant equity in the future. @skylersheppard @_kenstagram16 @jeffgraba @_mountain_drew @katiebecker_ @tay_krippner